John O'Neill

Scott McLennan

Bill Thomas

David Ritchie

From the Worcester Phoenix
of 3/3/2000:

Second Slam's twisted glory

Twang usher in the alt-porch-gunzo folk and hope people can stand it

by John O'Neill

Even though it had become a familiar sight -- these four guys and their instruments crammed into the neon-lit corner of Vincent's barroom -- the scene still had a deep, somewhat unsettling oddness about it. Four middle-aged men -- mostly acoustic musicians, hunched over and facing each other like they were circled against the younger set's potential hostility -- were lost in a full-fledged hootenanny, as if they were the only ones around. There was minimal eye contact with the crowd, some self-deprecating banter between numbers, then yet another pre-war, straight-from-the-back-porch-of-God-knows-where tune.

Running on the power of banjo, fiddle, nasal vocals, a one-stringed bass/washtub, some pedal steel, and a little electric guitar, Twang careened across America's musical landscape. Old-time, honkey-tonk, tin-pan, half-baked early country, lesser-baked rock and roll, and lunatic-fringe lyricism were coughed up to social hipsters whose ideas of "old time" were playing Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" on the jukebox between sets.But the best part was watching Twang as they sank deeper under the music's spell. It was as though they played more for each other than for the room -- which, except for a handful of brave souls opening their minds to the musical journey, appeared mentally taxed. No braying strains of Morrissey to set the background for their Saturday night. One man's folk revelation is another's dumb-ass hillbilly noise. Either way, Twang were just happy to be playing for the hat.

"We got kicked out of Vincent's. We were too mellow. And too loud. It was a small but vocal minority that didn't dig our stuff," says banjo plucker and vocalist Jim Reidy with a laugh. But he also knows traditional folk venues probably won't cut it either. "The coffeehouse thing is booked in advance and kind of snooty. We did the coffeehouse thing at Passim [in Cambridge] and spent our [free] time at the bar down the street. It was like, `Oh, we gotta go back and play.' We need to find a new bar to play!"

It's been a long, rather unfriendly road to oblivion for Reidy and his bandmates Chip Smith and Paul Strother, all of whom started playing together nearly 20 years ago with the Chicken Chokers. A '20s string band with modern influences, Chicken Chokers recorded two albums for Cambridge's Americana indie giant Rounder Records, toured with a young Allison Krauss, signed a contract for three more albums, then faded as soon as fiddler Chad Crumm split for New York. ("We still get a bill from Rounder every year for storing our unsold albums," says Reidy of the label experience).

Next came the more traditional fiddle band, the Primitive Characters, who, though an excellent old-fashioned outfit, fell apart as Reidy, Strother, and Smith again felt compelled to return to less-restrictive song structure. And so, with the addition of bassist Robbie Phillips (who also plays with the legendary Spider John Koerner and did a stint with the less-legendary G. Love and Special Sauce), and with everyone else trading instruments, the non-traditional Twang were born. Though they still play country and rags in their sets, their writing took a serious bend to the left, now captured in all its twisted glory on the band's excellent disc Second Slam.

"Paul's lyrics, they're kinda twisted. The second song ["My Love is Like a Tyre"] is about the carbon cycle and how it relates to his love," explains Reidy. "From ancient plants to the vulcanization of tires. It's pretty scientific. He's a paliobotonist to be precise, but he still [writes] kinda hokey stuff."

Recorded at Big Deal Studios by Bill Nelson, Second Slam (the proper CD-release party is this Friday at the Heywood Gallery) is best described as alt-porch-gonzo-folk. Loaded with fine instrumentation, Strother's over-active imagination, and with a few well-chosen covers, Twang's work stretches the limits of what's considered folk music just as the Holy Model Rounders ate acid and turned the folk world around 35 years ago. Which isn't to say that Twang are headed for the spaced-out nether-regions charted by Peter Stampfel and Steve Webber: but they hold the same devotion and irreverence for traditional folk forms. Taking from the well-known (a fairly clean take of Conway Twitty's "You Made Me What I Am"), as well as from the obscure (Michael Hurley's outstanding "Whiskey Willie" is given loving treatment), Twang mix conventional with the slightly off-kilter for an album's worth of material that's fascinating and fun.

Recorded in one session, with help from guitarist Bob Jordan and "drummer" Mickey Bones (who plays a refrigerator grate, an empty drywall bucket, and a metal folding chair to great effect), Second Slam weighs in as the first local must-have album of 2000, and it's a required listen for anyone even remotely interested in how far folk music can be pushed.

"There's all kinds of folk music," says Strother. "One great thing about old-time music is that it has such an oral tradition. Some people are aware of the tradition but we came into the whole thing without any pre-conceived notions. The way we play, we aren't aping anybody, but we're back into the pre-electric '20s and '40s, when people relied on oral tradition, when [music traveled] from fiddle to fiddle. We carry the torch for the world of pre-recorded music."

"This band has the potential to bring folk to people in a way they haven't heard before," adds Phillips. "It's a constantly changing thing that, if we present it, people might enjoy."

"Might," exclaims Reidy, laughing. "Might enjoy!"


from John O'Neill:
" First off, apologies for my editor (who also says sorry) for replacing the word "hook-y" with "hokey" in the story. It's my own fault for not going back in to final proof it, but let the record officially reflect that hokey was never an intention!"

from Paul Strother:

"paliobotonist" is spelled,"palaeobotanist" in England and "paleolobotomist" in West Virginia.
I talked to Vincent Friday night and he wants us to come back and play a special oneoff Saturday gig, so he can't be too mad...

Buy it at The Honking Duck Bazaar!